Government & Law

Crime and the legal system in the UK

Learn about crime and the legal system in the UK, including processes, common punishments, and how to protect yourself while living there.

crime in the uk

By Gary Buswell

Updated 12-1-2024

If you’re moving to the UK, it’s important to be aware of the laws to avoid possibly making a costly mistake. Good knowledge of the legal system also means you’ll know what to do and what your rights are in case you are somehow involved in a crime.

The issue of crime in the UK is slightly complicated because its political and legal systems vary by region (i.e., England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland). England is the main focus here, although the separate regions will be discussed as necessary.

Sections include:

The criminal justice system in the UK

The UK criminal justice system consists of government departments that work together with several other public agencies to decide on laws and deal with those that commit crimes. Two main government departments work in the area of criminal justice:

Met police van on UK street
Photo: Oli Woodman/Unsplash

Government departments in the UK work with the following agencies in the area of criminal justice:

Cross-border crime

Although the UK has now left the European Union (EU), the Trade and Partnership Agreement in place since the UK’s withdrawal (Brexit) includes provisions for cooperation with Europol for Europe-wide security. In September 2021, the NCA and Europol signed a new working arrangement. UK crime agencies also work with Interpol to tackle international crime in the UK.

While these departments and agencies are part of the UK central government, most of them apply either mainly or exclusively to England and Wales, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate criminal justice systems.

Crime in the UK

According to the European Crime Index, the UK crime rate is the 8th highest in Europe. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which collects data for England and Wales, reported a 14% overall increase in crime in 2021 compared to 2019. This was largely due to a big increase in fraud and cybercrime, while theft decreased in this period by 18%.

The percentage of total crime by type in 2021 was:

Type of crimePercentage
Theft, burglary, and robbery26%
Cybercrime and computer misuse15%
Violent crimes15%
Vehicle crimes2%

Protecting yourself against crime

The UK government works together with the police on crime prevention strategies. The police force has its own Crime Prevention Initiative that has been active for over 20 years, delivering a wide range of programs. In addition to this, the government has implemented a range of measures, the latest being the Beating Crime Plan (2021).

You can take simple steps to try and protect yourself from crime in the UK, such as:

  • Keeping doors locked and not leaving any windows wide open at home
  • Making sure no valuables are visible in parked cars
  • Never leaving belongings unattended
  • Avoiding unlit areas if you move around alone at night
  • Using strong passwords for all online accounts and not staying logged in on shared devices
  • Carrying a personal attack alarm or deterrent

The Metropolitan Police also has online tips on how to keep safe in different scenarios.

Reporting a crime in the UK

If you are a victim of crime

Survivors of crime can report it in several different ways:

  • Call 999 if the incident is an emergency. You can ask for the police and, if necessary, an ambulance.
  • If it’s a fairly minor crime, for example, property damage or antisocial behavior, you can call 101.
  • You can report the crime online.
  • You can visit the local police station.
  • If you wish to remain anonymous, you can contact CrimeStoppers online or call 0800 555111.

When reporting a crime in the UK as a victim, you won’t need to provide anything apart from information about what happened. The police will normally interview you and take a statement where you should give as much information as you can. You will also get a chance to make a Victim’s Personal Statement, where you can detail how the crime has affected you.

Following this, the police should give you the contact details of the case officer. They should also put you in touch with Victim Support and keep you informed of any developments.

If you have been the victim of a physical assault, you may be able to access additional support. The police may also ask you to undergo a medical examination. This is not compulsory but may provide vital evidence.

If the police catch the suspected offender and the case goes to court, you may be asked to attend the hearing.

Witnessing a crime

The procedure for reporting a crime as a witness is similar to the procedure for a victim.

You can report the crime using any of the same methods that you would as a victim. If you are unsure whether what you witnessed is a crime or not, you can check this list of what you can report to the police. You will be asked to give a witness statement if you report a crime, which the prosecutors may use as evidence if the case goes to court.

A man on his computer and phone reporting a crime
Photo: David Hahn/Unsplash

Next, the police should give you the contact details of the case officer and keep you informed of any developments. In certain rare cases where witnesses to crime may be in danger, you may be able to receive witness protection. Tell the police if you are worried for your safety after reporting the crime.

The police may contact you if they need any further help or have more questions. If they catch the suspected criminal and the case goes to court, you may be asked to attend the hearing and give evidence as a witness. All victims and witnesses can get support from their local Witness Care Unit during this process.

The UK has three separate legal systems: one for England and Wales, one for Scotland, and one for Northern Ireland. Although courts at the highest level have UK-wide jurisdiction and many modern laws are applicable across the whole nation, there are differences at the regional level. For example, England and Wales have a largely common law system based on judicial precedent and legal statutes. However, Scotland has a mixed system of common law and civil law rooted in Roman Law.

The UK’s legal system consists of three broad areas:

  • Criminal law: laws put in place by the state which all citizens have to obey
  • Civil law: laws protecting citizens’ personal rights, such as property rights or the right to payment if injured
  • Administrative law: laws governing the behavior and activities of public bodies

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2021, the UK ranks 16th in the world in terms of fairness of its legal system. It scores 0.79 on a scale of 0 (total unfairness) and 1 (total fairness).

Court system

The court system in the UK is complex and varied. In general, there are three types of court:

There is also a tribunal system for dealing with the majority of administrative cases and appeals. From there, decisions can escalate to the Court of Appeal.

Police and regional governments

In the UK, policing is the responsibility of regional governments. Scotland and Northern Ireland both have a national police force, while in England and Wales, the Home Office is responsible for 43 territorial police forces. In addition to this, there are three specialist forces: the British Transport Police (BTP), the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), and the Ministry of Defense Police (MOD).

Each police force has a Chief Constable or Commissioner as its head. There are also elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) in each territory that oversee forces and have the power to hold them accountable. In London, Manchester, and West Yorkshire, the elected Mayor serves as the PCC.

Police lamp on brick-wall, outside police station
Photo: Francois Olwage/Unsplash

Most police forces in England and Wales also employ police community support officers (PCSO) who don’t have the same power as other officers but do carry out certain functions like issuing fixed penalty notices and seizing alcohol from anyone under 18.

You can search online for your nearest police station.


Prisons in England and Wales fall under the responsibility of His Majesty’s Prison Service, part of the Ministry of Justice. Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate prison services. There are public and private prisons, segregated between men, women, and young people, and categorized according to the level of security:

Gender Age CategoryDescription
MaleAdultA Highest-risk prisoners and maximum security prisons
A–CAll levels of closed prison
DLowest-risk prisoners and open prisons
FemaleAdultClosedHighest-risk prisoners and maximum security prisons
OpenLowest-risk prisoners and open prisons
Young People18–21Young Offender Institutions (YOI)
up to 17Youth custody establishments

There are various types of prison sentences in the UK, including:

  • Suspended sentence: a delayed sentence that is only served if the defendant doesn’t meet certain conditions
  • Concurrent and consecutive sentences: for multiple offenses, served at the same time or served one after the other
  • Fixed-term sentences: for a set period of time
  • Indeterminate sentences: no time limit, will be reviewed after a set period
  • Life sentences: usually with a minimum parole period

Although prisons are mainly rehabilitative in the UK, cuts in prison spending since 2010 have led to worsening conditions and higher recidivism rates. The prison population in England and Wales is 167 per 100,000 people. This is higher than the EU average of 104. According to a study in the academic journal Wellcome Open Research, the chance that a prisoner is convicted of another crime within one year of their release is 48% in England and Wales, significantly higher than France (26%) but lower than Sweden (51%).

The trial process in the UK

The trial process depends on the kind of trial and the type of court the defendant is tried in. For Crown Court proceedings, there is normally an initial hearing where the defendant enters their plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge can either immediately impose a punishment or ask for more information before making a decision.

In cases where the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge will set a date for the trial. This can be weeks – or sometimes months – into the future, depending on court availability and case complexity. A jury of 12 people selected randomly from the electoral roll decides trial cases. Both the defense and prosecution build their cases to present in court. Legal representatives from each side question and cross-examine the defendant(s), victim(s), witnesses, and other key persons. They conclude by making final statements in front of the court.

Out of focus - judge signing documents, gavel in front
Photo: Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels

The jury then leaves the courtroom to decide on a verdict, which usually has to be unanimous, meaning all members of the jury must agree. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, the judge may agree to accept a majority verdict instead. In cases where the jury delivers a verdict of guilty, the judge will issue a punishment. For Crown Court cases, this is usually a prison sentence.

Magistrates’ trials follow a similar process, although there is no jury. The verdict is decided by either a district judge or magistrates advised by justices’ clerks.

Defendants may be jailed on remand if arrested for a serious offense, meaning they must remain in custody until the trial. Otherwise, the police may release them on bail and possibly limit their ability to travel until the trial.

Punishments in the UK

Punishments in the UK can include:

  • Prison sentences
  • Suspended prison sentences
  • Community service orders
  • Fines and compensation orders
  • Restrictions and penalizations relating to the area of offense, such as driving bans or points on your driver’s license
  • Conditional discharge, where you can avoid punishment if terms are met

For lengthy or life sentences in prison, you may be eligible for parole after a certain number of years if you meet the requirements.

If you commit a crime in the UK, this can stay on your criminal record, which is kept by the Disclosure and Barring Service (England and Wales) for up to 100 years. Serious crimes such as murder and sexual assault stay on a criminal record for a person’s lifetime. Most smaller offenses remain on record for up to 11 years.

Capital punishment

The UK abolished the death penalty with the Murder Act of 1965. The last execution in the UK took place in 1964.

Most serious crimes

The most serious offenses in the UK are known as indictable offenses, which can only be dealt with in a crown court and can carry heavy sentences. These include:

MurderImprisonment for life
ManslaughterUsually between 2–10 years
RapeTypically between four years and life imprisonment
Armed robberyBetween four years and life imprisonment
Possession of a firearmBetween six months and 14 years, depending on the intent
TerrorismBetween 14–25 years for serious offenses

Violent crime

In addition to those included among the most serious crimes, other violent crimes include:

Common assaultMaximum sentence of six months imprisonment
Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)Between six months and five years
Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)Maximum of five years
GBH with intentCan carry a penalty of life imprisonment in the most extreme cases
Throwing corrosive fluid with intent to injure or burnMaximum of life imprisonment
Possession of a firearmMaximum of four years


Minor theft cases are usually heard in Magistrates’ courts and carry sentences ranging from fines to six months in prison. Serious cases of theft determined in a Crown court carry a maximum sentence of seven years. The punishment for burglary, where someone enters a building as a trespasser with the intent to steal property, depends on the severity of the crime.

Neighborhood watch sign in London
Kensington, London (Photo: Bruno Martins/Unsplash)

Most punishments are between six months and six years, but high-category offenses can lead to a maximum of 14 years imprisonment.

Terrorism offenses

The UK Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism as violent or threatening actions designed to influence governmental organizations and/or intimidate the public to advance a political, religious, racial, or ideological cause. These actions include:

  • Serious violence
  • Serious damage to property
  • Endangering the lives of others
  • Creating serious health or public safety risk
  • Actions designed to severely disrupt electronic systems

Terrorism crimes in the UK include:

Carrying out or preparing a terrorist attackMaximum sentence of life imprisonment
Collecting information for terrorism purposesMaximum of 15 years
Disseminating terrorism materialsMaximum of 15 years
Membership or support of a banned organizationMaximum of 14 years
Possession of equipment for terrorist purposesMaximum of 15 years
Encouragement of terrorismMaximum of 15 years
Attending terrorist trainingMaximum of 14 years

Drug and alcohol-related offenses

Controlled substances fall into three categories in the UK, from Class A (most harmful) to Class C (least harmful). Punishment for drug- and alcohol-related offenses in the UK include:

PossessionFrom a police caution to a maximum of seven years imprisonment for Class A drugs
Supply or possession with intent to supplyMaximum of 14 years for Class B/C and maximum of life imprisonment for Class A
Importing or producing drugsMaximum of 14 years for Class B/C and maximum of life imprisonment for Class A

Many alcohol-related crimes are linked to other categories, for example, violence, theft, or driving offenses. Since being drunk and disorderly is a non-imprisonable offense, it carries the maximum penalty of a fine.


Fraud is now the most common crime in England and Wales, with over 5 million fraud offenses every year. The most common crimes include:

Tax evasionMaximum of seven years imprisonment
Money launderingMaximum of 14 years
Online fraudMaximum of five years, or 10 years in high-value cases
Identity theftMaximum of seven years
Banking fraudMaximum of 10 years
Bribery/corruptionMaximum of 10 years

Driving and traffic offenses

Minor driving violations – for example, driving without a seatbelt or most speeding offenses – are usually punishable by fines and points on the driver’s license.

More serious crimes, such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or while using a hand-held mobile device, can result in a temporary or permanent loss of license.

If you cause an incident that results in death or serious injury, the punishment can be a jail sentence.

Hate crimes or crimes of racial or religious hatred

UK law identifies hate crime as being based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity. Crimes generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Physical assault
  • Verbal abuse (or hate speech)
  • Incitement to hatred

Hate crime law in the UK is based on the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (sections 28–33) and the Sentencing Act 2020 (section 66). The maximum penalties for crimes that fall under the category of hate crimes are:

Common assaultTwo years
GBH or ABHSeven years
Criminal damage14 years
Causing fear or provoking violenceSix months
Intentional harassment, alarm, or distressTwo years

Immigration-related crimes

The UK government has passed various immigration-related legislation. The earliest is the Immigration Act of 1971, which still affects current law. The most recent legislation, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, increases the maximum sentence for entering or remaining in the UK unlawfully to four years imprisonment. This was subsequently criticized by the UNHCR for “undermining established international refugee protection rules and practices.”

Maximum punishments for other immigration-related crimes in the UK include:

Failing to comply with temporary admission conditionsSix months imprisonment
Using deception to enter or stay in the UKTwo years
Facilitating the illegal arrival of someone to the UK14 years
Failing to provide the required information or documentation or giving false information to immigration officersSix months
Employing anyone without the right to work in the UKFive years
Human trafficking14 years
Assaulting an immigration officerOne year
Possession of false identity documents10 years

Crimes of anti-social behavior

CrimeStoppers defines anti-social behavior as “a range of behaviours that can cause nuisance and annoyance, or harm and distress to a person.” You can find a list of the activities most commonly considered anti-social behavior on their website.

Most anti-social behavior carries a community order punishment, such as a civil injunction or a Criminal Behavior Order (CBO). This may require you to stay away from certain areas, attend behavior improvement workshops, and repair any damage caused.

These orders can last indefinitely and are reviewed periodically. If you don’t adhere to the terms, you can end up with a prison sentence of up to five years and/or a fine.

Your rights if you are arrested in the UK

If the police arrest you in the UK, you have rights while in custody and the police are required to follow certain codes of practice.

A man being arrested in the UK
Photo: Kindel Media/Pexels

Your rights include the following:

  • Legal representation: You can ask for a lawyer when the police arrest you, they cannot question you until your lawyer arrives
  • Free legal representation: If you cannot afford to pay, you can obtain a lawyer through the Legal Aid service
  • Medical attention: If you are feeling unwell, you can request healthcare (e.g., to see a doctor or go to the hospital)
  • Remain silent: The police should explain your right to remain silent (i.e., anything you say or omit may harm your defense later in court)
  • Contact someone: The right to tell someone where you are
  • Transparency: You have the right to see a copy of the police codes of practice

Once the police arrest you, they can keep you in custody for up to 24 hours. This extends to a maximum of 96 hours for serious offenses and 14 days for acts of terrorism.

If you feel that the police treat you unfairly while in custody or during the arrest procedure, you can complain directly to the police force that handled your arrest or to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).

Legal rights for internationals in the UK

Foreign residents in the UK have the same general rights as citizens, including the right to fair treatment and legal representation. However, anyone who is not a British citizen or permanent resident is at risk of deportation if they are convicted of a criminal offense.

According to the Immigration Act 1971, authorities can deport you by recommendation of the criminal courts or the Home Secretary. Furthermore, the UK Borders Act 2007 states that foreign nationals can be subject to deportation without prior recommendation if they receive a prison sentence of 12 months or more.

Extradition treaties

The UK has extradition arrangements in place with all EU countries as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. EU countries are Category 1 territories that can secure the extradition of a suspected criminal through an arrest warrant and an extradition hearing.

In addition, the UK has extradition arrangements in place with 116 Category 2 territories, including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. These are split into 35 Type-A countries that don’t have to provide prima facie evidence to support their request and 81 Type-B countries that do. Prima facie is a legal term meaning the evidence is sufficient to establish the fact unless questioned or proved otherwise.

Divorce laws in the UK

You can get a divorce in the UK if you have been legally married for at least one year. Generally, the process takes around six months and you can apply for a divorce jointly or on your own.

Currently, divorce fees in the UK are £593. You can apply online and will need a copy of your marriage certificate.

Useful resources

  • Ministry of Justice (MoJ) – the government department that oversees the UK criminal justice system
  • Home Office – the government department responsible for law and order, security, and police in the UK
  • Crown Prosecution Service – the public agency in charge of conducting criminal prosecutions
  • – national website for policing in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland
  • Police Scotland – website for policing in Scotland